There are rejections, and then there are rejections.
When I started sending my first manuscripts out in the late 1970s, everything was done on paper. In envelopes. With stamps. You included a SASE with your submission, and when you got rejected, you knew it the moment you saw your own handwriting on the manila envelope sticking out of your mailbox.
During my most prolific writing years, I was sending multiple manuscripts out on multiple submissions, and receiving multiple rejections – sometimes several in a single week. My office was in the basement of our raised ranch, and through the high windows I could see our letter carrier, from the knees to the shoulders – including the disappointing envelope in his hand. I knew I’d been rejected without even going to the mailbox.
What I couldn’t tell without actually opening the envelope was how good a rejection I’d gotten. Most common were form letters, often just three-by-four-inch slips. Thank you for your submission. We are sorry that it does not meet our editorial needs at this time. One step up was a form to which a handwritten note had been added – what one writer friend of mine referred to as “ink.” Most common was Sorry, closely followed by something like Sorry for the delay.
The more ink the better, of course. Especially if the rejection included encouragement. I was thrilled to receive, from one literary journal, Ruth Horowitz (my actual name!) Sorry we can’t use “Barbed-Wire Chicken,” but I would like to see more of your work.
What I prized most was a series of detailed critiques typed and signed by an editor at The New Yorker. Sending back that same story, “Barbed-Wire Chicken,” the editor began, This is a good, psychologically astute story, but I’m afraid we felt more engaged with it as a documentary, as sociology or naturalism, than as dramatic fiction. After going into more specifics explaining his response, he concluded, On its own terms, the story is excellent, however, and I thank you for the chance to see it.
I filed away all my rejections in folders, one for each manuscript. Each time I sent a story out, I assumed it would be rejected, and strategized about where to send it next. When a story did return, I tried to send it back out in the next day’s mail. I kept a record of submissions and responses on the inside of each story’s folder. Looking at those lists today, I’m amazed at my own perseverance and optimism.
I never did find a home for “Barbed-Wire Chicken.” After 35 rejections over the course of five years, I stopped sending it out. And despite half a dozen or so encouraging no’s, The New Yorker never said yes. After placing a couple of stories in literary journals, I found more success with children’s books, and then, as my kids got older, moved on to journalism.
For about 10 years, I sat out the submission/rejection process. Then I finished my novel and began looking for an agent. The whole universe had changed. Now everything was being done electronically. Personal responses were rarer than ever, and some agents never responded at all. Instead of waiting for the mail man, I watched my in-box. Once in a blue moon I received a message written by an actual human being, rather than a robots, and felt good about myself for the rest of the week.
Now that I have an agent, I don’t have to deal with the dirty work of submissions and rejections anymore. If an editor turns down my book and says something interesting, my agent will pass along the content. Otherwise, he’ll just let me know where we stand, and we’ll talk about where we’re going.
I don’t miss the grind and angst of submission and rejection. But I do miss the ink – those personal notes that let me know someone in the world of literature had read what I’d written, and written back. Even if it was just to say they were sorry.
I was prompted to write about all this after reading a blog post by my friend Linda about writing personal rejection letters. Linda was the assistant who pulled my query from the slush pile of the agent who now represents me. Linda has since moved on to become an agent, herself. She’s still discovering what it means to be an agent, and her recent posts offer a perspective that’s simultaneously insider and fresh-eyed. Check her out!